Ancrene Wisse

Ancrene Wisse
(Ancrene Riwle)
(ca. 1190–1220)
   Ancrene Wisse, also known as Rule for a Recluse and Guide for Anchoresses, is a 13th-century text, produced ca. 1190–1220 C.E. It is written in vernacular prose in the West Midlands dialect that Tolkien classified as the “AB language,”which is also the dialect of the KATHERINE GROUP and the WOOING GROUP (this language is a standard written—not spoken—dialect, characterized by a significant number of French and Norse loanwords, frequent colloquial expressions, conservative spelling, and syntactical similarities to Old English).
   Although Ancrene Wisse is a rather straightforward treatise, it contains exempla, brief allegories, biblical allusions, and elaborate descriptions, which all combine to make a lively example of the early English vernacular tradition. Most scholars believe that the Middle English manuscripts MS Cotton Nero A.xiv and MS Cotton Cleopatra, held by the British Library in London, and MS Corpus Christi 402, held by Corpus Christi College of Cambridge University, contain the least altered and most important versions of the text. Counting fragments, 17 medieval versions exist, 11 in MIDDLE ENGLISH, four in Latin, and two in French, indicating the relative popularity and significance of the work. In some of these versions, the basic text has been revised and adapted for a different audience, such as a larger community or a group of men. It was also interpreted and altered by the LOLLARDS in the late Middle Ages.
   Ancrene Wisse, the longest and most complete of the anchoritic rules (ways of life), was sometimes referred to as the Ancrene Riwle in the past. Ancren Riwle was the title attached to the work by James Morton in his 1853 edition, and has no medieval authority. For some time, the only change was the affixing of the genitive marker “e” to Ancren, indicating correct usage of the possessive. Today, scholars generally prefer the title Ancrene Wisse, which was also assigned in modern times, but is based on a scribal-inscribed colophon found on the first folio of MS Cambridge 402.Wisse has been almost universally translated as some variation of “guide,” presuming that it is a noun derived from the Middle English verb wissin, which means “to guide” or “to direct.”
   According to the text, Ancrene Wisse was written specifically for three sisters at their own behest. These young anchoresses were desirous of a rule to govern their daily routines. The entire manuscript reveals further details concerning the sisters’ windows, cells, furnishings, servants, clothing, daily activities, bodily care, and interactions with community members. It also outlines daily devotions, contains exhortations about the care of the soul and regulation of the senses, dispenses advice about sin, penance, and confession, and teaches about the delights of divine love.
   The anchoritic vocation was considered to be one of the strictest religious pursuits. Building upon the early desert traditions of the Patristic era, anchorites were individuals who, desiring to spend their entire life in contemplative prayer, withdrew from the world completely. After securing permission from his/her bishop, a prospective anchorite (or female “anchoress”) would undergo a formal “burying ceremony,” and then be walled up in a small cell attached to a church. This cell, as Ancrene Wisse indicates, would have windows built into it for receiving food and other necessary items, for communicating with servants and supplicants, and for observing mass and receiving communion. There were numerous anchorites throughout the Christian West, though England seemingly had the largest number. Moreover, anchoritism was particularly attractive to women, and the majority of practicing anchorites were female. There was no one set Rule that anchorites had to follow, nor did an anchorite have to be a member of a formal religious order. It seems that many anchorites adapted a monastic rule for their own use or asked for one to be created for them to follow. Ancrene Wisse is one such creation. Ancrene Wisse is composed of an introduction and eight parts. The subjects of these are as follows: I. Devotions; II. The Five Senses; III. The Inner Senses; IV. Temptations (external and internal); V. Confession; VI. Penance; VII. Divine Love; VIII. The Outer Rule. Of these, Part I and Part VIII are primarily concerned with external actions, bodily conduct, and daily living. The Inner Rule, found in Parts II through VII, concerns the spiritual comportment of the anchoresses as they wage war against temptation and pursue the love of God. Ancrene Wisse spends a great deal of textual space detailing the disposition of worldly goods and functions. Adherence to both sets of rules was necessary to vanquish temptation, and even the daily devotions of the anchoresses were framed by their worldly associations.However, it is ultimately the Inner Rule that comprises the substance of the manuscript, and obviously consumed most of the recluse’s time. Her primary duty lay in prayer and spiritual development, along with scrupulous monitoring of her own senses.
   Scholars have been debating the origins of Ancrene Wisse for some time. Suggested sources have included the Rule of St. Benedict, which was the basis for the majority of medieval monastic rules, the Rule of St. Augustine, and the Rule of St. Dominic, as well as the Premonstratensian Statutes. Still other scholars suggest that there is no specific tradition to which Ancrene Wisse can be tied; rather, these individuals believe it is a composite text that draws on a variety of sources.Whatever the direct source, if indeed there is one, Ancrene Wisse clearly draws upon the works of many Patristic theologians, such as St. JEROME and St. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO, as well as on the Bible.
   Much of the early scholarly research about Ancrene Wisse was devoted to the search for an author and an audience, as well as direct source material. From these early investigations, the natural progression was to examinations of the linguistic evidence, especially vocabulary and style.More recent scholarship has focused on the relationship between Ancrene Wisse and the larger anchoritic tradition, as well as its relationship to the larger field of women’s spirituality. Further inquiry into links between Ancrene Wisse and the later medieval mystic tradition has also been the subject of recent work on this text. Ancrene Wisse is a valuable text not only for its glimpse into the anchoritic vocation and its revelations about women’s spiritual expression, but also for its preservation of the early English literary tradition. Not many vernacular texts survive from the 13th century, and as such, Ancrene Wisse is particularly important in providing both cultural context and key linguistic features, particularly its evidence of the development of the language from OLD ENGLISH into Middle English.
   ■ Ancrene Wisse. Edited by Robert Hasenfranz. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.
   ■ Dobson, E. J. Origins of Ancrene Wisse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.
   ■ Georgianna, Linda. The Solitary Self: Individuality in the Ancrene Wisse. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
   ■ Grayson, Janet. Structure and Imagery in Ancrene Wisse. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1974.
   ■ Millet, Bella.“The Origins of Ancrene Wisse: New Answers, New Questions,”Medium Ævum 61 (1992): 206–228.
   ■ Robertson, Elizabeth. Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
   ■ Savage, Anne, and Nicholas Watson. Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works. Preface by Benedicta Ward. New York: Paulist Press, 1991.
   ■ Tolkien, J. R. R. “Ancrene Wisse and Hali Mei´?had,” Essays and Studies 14 (1929): 104–126.
   Michelle M. Sauer

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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